What is the Paris Climate Agreement, anyway?

Joe Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Accord as one of his first acts as president. This action has been well received by many, as an important step to stopping climate change. After so many years however, it may be a bit hard to remember what this accord actually is. This post is intended as a reminder.

The Paris Climate Accord is a treaty (or formal agreement) between almost 200 countries around the globe. All countries in the accord agree to meet targets that will limit warming to 2C as a maximum, or ideally 1.5C.

Why this is important

Climate change has already lead to extreme weather conditions such as the enormous fires and hurricanes we have seen have all been caused by climate change. Rising sea levels puts many homes at risk, and may eventually sink whole cities. Miami is already in trouble, and many other coastal cities are facing similar difficulties.

Limiting the warming may not stop these catastrophes from happening, but it will help keep them from getting worse.

How the accord works

Countries who have committed to the Paris Climate Agreement set goals towards achieving this in 5 year cycles. Individual countries decide for themselves what actions they can take that will best meet these goals, and these plans are then communicated to other countries.

At the same time, countries involved will also take steps to prepare for problems related to global warming that we can’t stop, such as extreme weather conditions. By building cities tougher, we can help limit damage done by global warming.

The agreement also provides funding for undeveloped countries to help them decarbonize as well as prepare as much as possible for the inevitable. The first 5 years, through 2020 in fact, were designed to allow nations to get their acts together and prepare to decarbonize.

Although the climate could certainly use humanity to simply stop all emissions now, Covid-19 has made it vastly clear that even when people stay home, the economy is shuttered, and factories closed, a tremendous amount of emissions still occur.

Many nations are aiming to decarbonize by 2050, with more ambitious countries setting their sight on 2030.

The goals for the climate accord are flexible, and recognize that every country’s path to reducing climate emissions will be a unique one. According to the 32 page document, which you can read here, the purpose of the agreement is:

  1. To formally recognize climate change as a global threat
  2. To encourage nations to set ambitious climate goals
  3. To help undeveloped countries gain the tools they need to fight climate change
  4. To be transparent with other nations about their progress

As you read the document, you’ll see that the agreement is couched in terms of “requests” and “urges.” This agreement is purposefully left wide open so that nations are free to follow the agreement how they see fit.

So is this a good thing for the US?

It depends entirely on how we use it. There is no fine, infraction, or punishment for not adhering to goals. (Apart from public humiliation on a global scale, anyway.) On top of this, there is a financial obligation to help countries who don’t have the resources to decarbonize.

A chief complaint about the Paris Climate Agreement is that it doesn’t hold other countries accountable enough. One example is that while the US has contributed 1 billion dollars to the Green Climate Fund (one of the funds that support developing countries) India and China have paid nothing into it.

Fears that the US will be made into a giant piggy bank for the rest of the world is reasonable, especially since the US isn’t the only top polluter out there. Fortunately, this is not the case. 49 countries have donated to the GCF so far, and the USA is the 11th per capita in how much has been invested.

You can read specifically who has donated and how much, here.

Another concern is that decarbonizing could cause problems for jobs, raise electricity prices, and cause businesses to struggle under tightened regulations. These could be valid concerns, depending on how the US handles their approach.

At this time, it appears that rising electricity prices are unlikely to occur. You can read about this from experts here. The price of clean energy, and more importantly the storage of that energy, has come down to the point where it is projected that 90% of all energy could be clean as early as 2035 without any additional costs.

Costs to the economy and job losses remain the top concerns for joining the agreement. Several studies in developing countries have looked at renewable energies and their economies. In one study conducted in Nigeria found that renewables depressed the economy by about 0.7131%.

Other studies in the MIST countries echoed this data. This needs to be addressed in order to make sure the future economy remains strong. A possible path to this could be using a circular economy, which showed growth in a sustainable fashion.

The final problem of job losses in the fossil fuel sector is another valid concern. The fact of the matter is, if we take the Paris Agreement seriously and decarbonize, those who work in the fossil fuel industry will be out of jobs.

President Biden appears to have a plan for this, and will support and retrain fossil fuel workers as they change jobs. It turns out, may oilsand workers want retraining in renewables, and Canadian oilsand workers have even created their own transition plan.

If the US adopts a similar strategy, it could pave the way for a prosperous future that is both environmentally friendly and economically sound.

If however, we simply join the accord and then fail to meet our own goals, as many countries are currently doing, we might as well stay out of it.

In order for the accord to be worth anything, the US and other countries involved must truly take to heart that there is only one planet, and it will take all of us to save it, then it is a useful step on the way to decarbonization. The US has always been a global leader when it mattered most, and it can take that position and use it to encourage other countries to do what it takes to meet our goals.

President Biden has taken a strong stance on climate change on his first days in office, and that could mean real change, not just for the US, but for the world. If the transition is done well, the Paris Climate Agreement—and the US joining it—could be good for the planet, and the future of all.

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